Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center

Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center in Ithaca, New York by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects, 2011

Cornell Plantations is, as the name indicates, part of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. It consists of a dozen themed gardens in its 25-acre botanical garden and specialty gardens, collections of trees and shrubs in a 150-acre arboretum, and 4,000 acres of natural areas, consisting of "ecologically important sites on and off campus." At the heart of Cornell Planatations is the Botanical Garden, located east of the school's main quads and south of Fall Creek's Beebe Lake. Recently added to the garden is the Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center designed by Toronto-based Baird Sampson Neuert Architects.

Just as Cornell University is adding buildings to its campus (see my recent "half dose" on OMA's Milstein Hall), Cornell Plantations also underwent building renovation and new construction projects, what they call "Plantation Transformations." Started in 2000, the Nevin Welcome Center is an important part of that modernization and infrastructural improvements; it is actually referred to as the "grand finale" of the decade-long construction. Sited in the center of the Botanical Garden, at the confluence of existing walking paths, the building tucks itself into a plateau on the west and opens up towards the flatland to the south. A new parking lot, which features a bio-swale for cleansing stormwater from the lot, is also found to the south, but access to the Welcome Center also occurs from the north.
[D]emarcating the route of an ancient glacial river... [the] bioswale is designed to receive stormwater from the upper campus, to provide environmental benefits beyond the immediate project. -Baird Sampson Neuert
The two-story building is primarily defined by its south facade, which curves gently from over a stone wall on the west to a double-height space with glass walls on the east, where cafe seating is also found. Wood louvers above the first floor's door height follow this curve and serve to filter summer sunlight but admit winter sun for passive heating. Other green-building strategies include rooftop solar thermal panels and a motorized vent/skylight that draws cool air through the building. The latter is based around the cool air that pools at the base of the knoll atop the plateau on the west. Combined with the usual green features (recycled materials, high-efficiency water fixtures, etc.), the project is tracking to become Cornell's first LEED Platinum project.

Inside, the building is fairly straightforward, split roughly 50/50 on the first floor between the exhibition space and gift shop/cafe on the east and service spaces (mechanical, restrooms, office) on the west. Upstairs houses a multi-purpose room that spills out onto an event terrace at plateau level and a conference room housed in a wood-slat volume over the gift shop. While the south facade is most striking, the north elevation is equally important, as a connector of the two levels that the building spans. Lastly, the circulation that wraps much of the building -- be it at the flatland level or paralleling the stair to the north -- points to an interpretation of the building as an element that inserts itself into the landscape and allows bodies (people, water, etc.) to flow around it. In this regards, the southern curve is a perfect symbol for the Plantation's new Welcome Center.